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Team Development:

The Power of Debriefing


By Denise L. Reyes, Scott I. Tannenbaum, and Eduardo Salas

T
hink about one of the best teams that you’ve been on. been shown to be useful in a broad range of settings. The
It could be a team at work or a team from outside of original debriefs were fairly elaborate, thorough affairs (imag-
the workplace. Was that team great on day one? We’ve ine debriefing a recent battle), but most current debriefs,
asked this question to thousands of people over the years particularly those in corporate settings, are fairly efficient,
and very, very few teams are great when they are first formed. often being conducted in 15 to 60 minutes.
The best teams become great because they learn from their Well-conducted debriefs work, and there is strong meta-an-
experiences and they make adjustments. They self-correct. alytic evidence to support that contention. A meta-analysis is a
While a few teams and team leaders seem to do this naturally, statistical combination of all prior empirical studies on a topic.
most need a little structure and guidance. Fortunately, there We generally have more confidence in the findings from a
is a relatively simple, inexpensive technique, called a team meta-analysis than from any one study. Tannenbaum and Cer-
debrief, that when applied properly, has been shown to con- asoli conducted a meta-analysis of 46 prior research samples
sistently enhance team effectiveness. This article highlights that examined debriefing.2
what you need to know to conduct successful team debriefs. On average, teams that conduct debriefs outperform those
Not all teams are created equally, but virtually any team that do not by over 20 percent. That’s a remarkable bump for
can benefit from a team debrief. The technique was originally a relatively simple intervention. During a debrief, a team sim-
developed for military use in the ‘70s1, but since then, it has ply reflects upon and discusses recent experiences, identifying

46 PEOPLE + STRATEGY
We partition what’s needed into three main sections:
before, during, and after a team debrief, offering 10 best
practices from the research on debriefing.3 You’ll find these
listed in Table 1. Along the way, we’ll try to be clear about the
“must dos” and “nice to haves.” In all, we hope to provide you
with the information needed to conduct effective debriefs and
make simple team debriefs a standard leadership practice in
your organization.

Before a Debrief
Prior to running a team debrief, there are a few conditions
that will greatly increase the likelihood of success.

Best Practice 1: Allocate time to debrief. What is the num-


ber one reason why debriefing fails to boost team effective-
ness? It is because the leader simply didn’t allocate time to
conduct it. Even if the leader is well-intended, we’ve noticed
that if time isn’t scheduled, it won’t happen spontaneously.
Admittedly, at first it requires a little discipline to commit to
doing periodic debriefs and putting them on the calendar.
But ideally, a team debrief shouldn’t be a major event, just a
normal part of being on a team, like establishing an agenda
for a meeting or a charter for a project. Leaders who have
seen the benefit of periodically “investing” 30 minutes in team
debriefs build them into their standard leadership practices.

Best Practice 2: Educate team leaders on how and why to


lead team debriefs. Team leaders are far more likely to con-
duct team debriefs, and to do so effectively, if they understand
their role in leading them, including some relatively straight-
forward dos and do nots that make a big difference (we high-
light five of those below). It is also helpful for them to know
that a debrief doesn’t take long and that research shows that
they improve team performance—so debriefing isn’t some
“feel good” HR program, but rather just a solid leadership
practice.
With expanding spans of control, most leaders can’t see
everything that is going on in their team. If team members
don’t have a vehicle for sharing what they are seeing, the
leader and other team members are operating partially in the
dark. Periodic debriefs help turn on the light. We’d encour-
age you to provide a 30-minute educational module on how to
what went well and where improvements may be possible. conduct a team debrief as part of your management develop-
They reach agreements on specific adaptations they intend to ment and project management training efforts. Much of the
make and then they get back to work. In the course of doing content you’ll need to assemble that module can be extracted
this, they often fill in team members’ knowledge gaps (“I from this article.
didn’t know that happened”); surface where they might need
additional support (which perhaps their leader can request); Best Practice 3: Teach leaders and team members about
and develop shared mental models about priorities, roles, or what really influences team effectiveness—the “science” of
what to do in certain situations (“if-then”) in the future. teamwork. There is an increasingly clear body of research on
Yet, this quick and easy technique often goes unused. So, what really influences team effectiveness. For example, simply
the purpose of this article is to encourage you to conduct “hanging out” together, while perhaps fun, will not address
team debriefs and to provide you with 10 scientific-based team problems with role ambiguity, competing priorities, or a
guidelines, or best practices, on how to use them effective- failure to fill in for one another when needed. We’ve noticed
ly. We also provide a short outline for leading a quick team that when the leader has a clearer understanding about what
debrief. In other words, we share why you should conduct de- drives effective teamwork, such as appropriate communica-
briefs and provide ample information so you can implement tions, backup behavior, role clarity, and shared mental mod-
them properly. els, they tend to lead more constructive debrief conversations.

VOLUME 41 | ISSUE 2 | SPRING 2018 47


While team training is not a requirement to conduct an effec- So, psychological safety is desirable in any team, but it is a
tive debrief, think of it as a booster shot. If you have the chance particularly important element for effective debriefs. Why? Be-
to educate your leaders and team members about teamwork, cause at the heart of any successful debrief are team members
you’ll see benefits both during your debriefs and in general.4 sharing their perceptions, including acknowledging when
they didn’t know something, didn’t do something as effective-
Best Practice 4: Ensure that team members feel comfort- ly as they’d like, or didn’t like the way something transpired.
able actively participating in a debrief. Another condition that People are only willing to do that when they believe there is
sets the stage for successful debriefs is having a psychologically adequate psychological safety.6
safe environment. Psychological safety is the shared belief A leader’s behaviors go a long way towards creating psy-
among team members that it is safe to take interpersonal risks chological safety. Framing errors as learning opportunities,
and speak up, even if the idea may be unpopular.5 It is the rather than punishable failures, is one such behavior. Being
belief that you can be yourself in front of your team. Recently, clear about what is negotiable (open to team input) and what
Google conducted a study to find out why some of their teams is non-negotiable (cannot be changed) also helps, because it
were more effective than others. After examining all sorts of allows the leader to constructively redirect a fruitless conversa-
hypotheses (including the “hanging out” together hypothe- tion (e.g., discussing an unfixable bug in a computer appli-
sis), they concluded that the single most important factor for cation) towards one that is within the team’s control (e.g.,
a successful Google team was psychological safety. how to work around the problem). But perhaps the number
one leader behavior for boosting psychological safety is when
leaders admit their own mistakes or faults. When we taught
military leaders to acknowledge their own limitations, we ob-
served a marked increase in team members who did the same.
Table 1 Establishing psychological safety makes employees more open
Evidenced-based Best Practices to having a constructive discussion because they are less afraid
for Debriefing of feeling blamed or criticized.
When teammates feel “enough” psychological safety, they
Before a Debrief can use debriefs as an opportunity to provide feedback to one
• Allocate time to debrief. another. It allows them to share their ideas on how to solve
• Educate team leaders on how and why to lead team problems without others judging them. But the stage must be
debriefs. set before the debrief.
• Teach leaders and team members about what really
influences team effectiveness—the “science” of During a Debrief
teamwork. When these pre-conditions are met, the foundation exists
• Ensure team members feel comfortable actively for a solid debrief. So, what needs to happen during the
participating in a debrief (“psychological safety”). debrief to maximize its effectiveness? We’ve observed many
debrief sessions and examined the research on debriefing.
Unfortunately, simply having good interpersonal skills and
During a Debrief
technical competence doesn’t ensure that a person will
• Avoid five common debrief pitfalls. lead an effective debrief.7 The way the debrief is structured
a. Too much focus on “task work.” and facilitated determines its success. The following best
b. Telling, not discussing. practices can help.
c. Improper or inadequate focus.
Best Practice 5: Avoid five common debrief pitfalls. There
d. Good look back, but no definitive look forward.
are a few common pitfalls that can derail an otherwise effec-
e. Too evaluative or threatening. tive debrief.8 So, during a debrief, it is imperative to avoid the
• Try to conduct the debrief close in time to the “action,” if five common pitfalls, noted below.
possible.
• Record conclusions and agreements reached to be able 5a) Too much focus on “task work.” When left on their
to “close the loop” after the debrief. own, with no guidance, almost all team debriefs gravitate to-
• If appropriate, consider trying technology to assist with wards a discussion of “task work.” Physicians talk about disease
your debriefs. symptoms, military leaders focus on weapon system capabil-
ities, and programmers talk about problems with the code.
After a Debrief They don’t naturally bring up teamwork issues, which may
be creating some of the taskwork problems. It’s important to
• Boost accountability and willingness to participate in
recognize that leaders are often promoted into their positions
future debriefs by following up on agreements and
because of their task expertise, so they may be less comfort-
communicating progress.
able discussing teamwork than taskwork issues.
• Conduct periodic debriefs that are “fit for purpose.”
One simple way to combat this is by providing the team
leader with a checklist of teamwork themes they can cover

48 PEOPLE + STRATEGY
during a team debrief. An example of a simple framework for Best Practice 6: Try to conduct the debrief close in time
conducting a quick debrief is shown in Table 2. to the “action,” if possible. Debriefs ask participants to recall
and discuss their team’s experiences. Naturally, the more
5b) Telling, not discussing. We’ve seen this pitfall too many time that transpires, the less people can actually recall about
times. A leader begins the session by telling his team what the experience. They may remember how they felt, or their
he believes the team has done effectively and the mistakes “interpretation” of what happened, but they are less likely to
the team made prior to soliciting the team’s perceptions. He recall exactly what happened as time goes by. A debrief relies
doesn’t engage the team in diagnosing team effectiveness and on accurate observations and feedback, so as a general rule
developing action plans. When a leader simply tells his or her of thumb, it is best not to wait too long to debrief a particular
team their conclusions and what “needs to be done,” team event, decision, or situation. Ideally, for most management
members are less likely to “own” and commit to those action and project teams, we’d encourage you to set up a regularly
plans—they are also less likely to share any perceptions that scheduled opportunity to debrief (perhaps twice per month).
differ from what the leader said. If there’s nothing to discuss you can cancel it, but you’ll likely
Research has shown that learners who are guided toward find that there is often something worth debriefing.
self-discovery have better developmental experiences than
those who are simply given answers.9 Ironically, the greater the Best Practice 7: Record conclusions and agreements
expertise of the person leading the debrief, the more prone reached to be able to “close the loop” after the debrief. When
they may be to “talking at” the team. If you are facilitating a the team reaches conclusions and agrees to the adjustments
debrief, begin by asking questions, not giving answers. If you they want to make, those should be captured during the de-
discover you have a different point of view, weigh in after the brief and circulated to the team shortly thereafter. This serves
team has first had the chance to share their perspective. several purposes. First, it gives everyone on the team one last
chance to confirm that they concur or to note where they
5c) Improper or inadequate focus. We have seen teams had a different understanding about the agreements. In that
spend 90 percent of an unstructured debrief talking about sense, it eliminates potential ambiguity. Second, it increases a
unimportant, “safe,” or un-actionable topics. Then, in the last sense of accountability among team members, as we’re more
few minutes, the important issues start to surface and the team likely to do something if we know it will be tracked. Third,
says something like, “we don’t have time to discuss that today, it provides a tangible check point that the team can use to
maybe next time.” Participating in this type of debrief can be close the loop during their next debrief. For example, at the
very frustrating, which discourages team members from wanting end of a debrief a team might agree that whoever presents
to debrief in the future. Be sure that your debrief has “enough” to the team will state whether they are simply updating the
structure and if the team is starting to spend too much time on team, seeking their input, or looking for the team to make a
something trivial or “non-negotiable,” help them move forward decision. During the next debrief session, they can ask, “have
by asking a question about a meaningful team issue. we been doing a good job of stating our expectations?” If yes,
great; we should feel good about the progress. If not, do we
5d) Good look back, but no definitive look forward. Some want to keep that agreement and if so, how can we be better
teams engage in an excellent discussion about the past, about it going forward?
reflecting on a recent experience. But the debrief didn’t help
them adapt, because they never transitioned from looking Best Practice 8: If appropriate, consider trying technology
backward to looking forward. While discussing past events can to assist with your debriefs. To be clear, you can conduct a
be interesting, at some point it is important to call the ques- debrief without any technology. But there have been some
tion: “should we be doing anything different going forward?” interesting developments that you should be aware of that
If so, let’s be clear about what, who, when, and how. If not, might enhance your debriefs in certain circumstances.
that’s okay, and it’s probably time to explore a different issue. When used correctly, multimedia aids can provide a mean-
ingful improvement on debrief effectiveness. For example,
5e) Too evaluative or threatening. Some leaders inadvertently one web-based tool that has been used at NASA, with medical
make their debriefing sessions feel more like a performance teams, and in other corporate settings is called DebriefNow. (In
review (or court hearing) than a chance to get smarter and full disclosure, this is a tool offered by one author’s company.)
make quick, informal adjustments. If I perceive a debrief as a DebriefNow was designed to provide structure and guidance
time when I’ll be judged and evaluated, I’m more likely to be for a team leader or facilitator, helping them avoid a few of the
defensive, make excuses, and explain away problems (or avoid common pitfalls (e.g., ensuring the team spends its time on
talking about them). I’m also less likely to share my perceptions higher priority teamwork issues). Team members anonymously
and acknowledge concerns. Research has shown that perceived answer a few questions about the team’s recent experiences, and
purpose (judgmental versus developmental) has a significant based on the team’s responses, the tool produces a customized
impact on the accuracy and acceptance of feedback.10 discussion guide with prioritized questions for guiding the de-
So be sure the tone of your debriefs are primarily devel- brief. Research has shown that a structured approach like this is
opmental in intent (let’s learn some stuff and make a few more effective than simply asking “what went well, what did not
adjustments) rather than judgmental or evaluative (let’s find go well, and what should we do differently?”11
out who is to blame for our problems). Teams do not need DebriefNow to conduct a debrief, but

VOLUME 41 | ISSUE 2 | SPRING 2018 49


it can assist team leaders and other facilitators who would members. You can predict what will happen next. Team mem-
benefit from a little guidance and structure. bers lose interest in participating in future debriefs. So, a key
Another tool, called the Synchronous Mobile Audio-visual post-debrief step is to close the loop, checking to see if the team
Recording Technology Cart (SMART-Cart), was designed to (or individuals) are living up to the agreements, and if so, assess-
facilitate video-assisted debriefing in a faster and more reliable ing if they are working as intended. This increases the likelihood
way than traditional delivery.12 that changes occur and it reinforces that the debrief is a worth-
When debriefing occurs after a team training session (an- while forum for speaking up. Sometimes useful feedback about
other useful time for conducting a debrief), participants can progress (or lack thereof) can be provided from the leader to
watch their performance as a means
of promoting reflection and discus-
sion. The SMART-Cart stores recorded
video of the trained simulation in a Table 2
central server for remote viewing and Quick Team Debrief Outline
reduces setup and take-down times.
This specific tool was developed for 1. Set the stage (30 to 60 seconds)
use as part of healthcare simulations, • Explain why you are conducting a debrief and what the team will be discussing.
but it can be useful in other contexts; • “This is a quick opportunity to learn from our experience. Let’s look at how we handled
for instance, a facilitator of a corpo- this [situation, project, event, meeting, shift]: what we did well or could improve.”
rate team can show video footage • “Let’s consider how we worked as a team, in addition to any technical issues”
of their team training to highlight • If there are any boundaries or “non-negotiables,” let the team know what’s off limits.
specific teamwork processes so that
participants can see, reflect upon, and
Basic assumption: “We’re all competent and well intentioned people who want to do our
discuss how they can improve on-the- best. This is about getting better at what we do.”
job. In general, video can be a useful
tool for team debriefs when the team
activity in question (e.g., a training 2. Ask the team for their observations (5-20 minutes)
simulation or perhaps a team meet-
• What happened?
ing), is amenable to video-recording,
• What did we do well? What challenges did we face?
and the team is willing to allocate the
• What should we do differently or focus on next time?
time to take a closer look at the way
• What could help us be more effective? Anything we need?
they handled the activity.
As technology advances, we envision
more strategies to assist debriefing. For 3. Add your observations/recommendations and confirm understanding (5-10 minutes)
example, there have been discussions • Reinforce their observations, or if you noticed something different, share your view of
of mobile applications being developed what happened or needs to happen in the future.
to help teams complete debriefing re- • Be sure any feedback you provide is clear, actionable, and focuses on the work, not
motely. This can benefit the debriefing personal traits.
process by providing participants with
privacy to answer questions on their 4. Summarize any agreed-upon actions or focus for the future (5 minutes)
own and then displaying results for the
• Be clear about who will do what, when...and how this will help the team.
team to review as a whole.
• Specify when and how you will follow up to assess progress (e.g., next debrief?).
After a Debrief Tip: Ask the team for their perceptions first. Then if possible, acknowledge one thing that you could
An effective debrief can surface where have done differently or that you will focus on in the future. This will make it easier for team members to
improvements are needed and the voice their own observations or concerns.
plans to adopt. What happens after the
Tip: If the team doesn’t discuss teamwork, ask “how well did we work together as a team?”
debrief will also influence its efficacy. Perhaps ask one or two specific questions such as:

Best Practice 9: Boost accountability HOW WELL DID WE... HOW CLEAR WERE OUR...
and willingness to participate in future + Communicate/share info + Roles/assignments
+ Monitor/provide backup + Goals/priorities
debriefs by following up on agreements + Coordinate with “outsiders”
and communicating progress. Let’s + Speak up/challenge one another
assume that team members were willing + Ask for/offer help
+ Handle conflict
to open up about their concerns and + Share/allocate resources
that the team reached a few tangible + Prepare/plan
agreements during a debrief. But then
nothing happens, or at least nothing Adapted from www.gOEbase.com. Permission granted.
happened that was visible to the team

50 PEOPLE + STRATEGY
a specific team member or even peer to peer. Other times, it is slightly deeper, 60-minute debrief discussion. One final tip:
best done in a team setting. Regardless, the key is to ensure that if the only times you conduct debriefs are after something
follow-up occurs and that the team sees change and progress as went wrong, people will start associating debriefs with blaming
a result of their participation. sessions, like being called to the principal’s office as a child.
You’ll want to avoid that.
Best Practice 10: Conduct periodic debriefs that are “fit
for purpose.” Conducting a one-off debrief is okay, but the Conclusion
most value comes from conducting a series of them, allowing Structured team debriefs are a simple, easy-to-use, but un-
the team to make small, continual adjustments so reflection, derutilized technique to improve teamwork behaviors. Your
discussion, and adaptation become part of the team’s natural organization is likely using teams on a regular basis. And
rhythm. Unfortunately, the most common debrief we’ve seen it is no fun being on a struggling team. By following the 10
in corporate settings is a one-off and it occurs at the end of science-based debriefing best practices noted above, you can
a project. Sometimes it is referred to as a post-mortem. This increase team effectiveness throughout your organization
type of debrief can help surface a few lessons learned for from senior leadership teams to project teams to change
the future, but frankly if that is the only debrief you conduct management to sales to manufacturing teams. We strongly
during the project, you’ve missed out on the opportunity to encourage you to give it a try.
make mid-course corrections.
There is no magical, perfect frequency with which to conduct
debriefs. In general, the more complex and dynamic the work This work was supported, in part, by research grants from the Ann
the team is performing, the greater the recommended debrief and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University.
frequency. Naturally, shorter debriefs can be conducted more
frequently than elaborate ones. For example, it can be beneficial Denise L. Reyes is a doctoral student at Rice University studying
to quickly huddle up after any team presentation or at the end Industrial/Organizational Psychology. She is a research fellow for
of any team meeting and ask, what did we do well, what could the Doerr Institute for New Leaders and can be reached at De-
we do differently next time? That only takes five minutes. nise.L.Reyes@rice.edu.
For senior leadership teams (and other decision-making
Scott I. Tannenbaum, Ph.D., is President of the Group for Orga-
teams), we highly recommend conducting the occasional “de-
nizational Effectiveness (gOE), a consulting and research firm he
cision” debrief. Take a recent decision and discuss: a) what was
co-founded in 1987. He received SIOP’s 2018 Distinguished Profes-
the decision (e.g., what led up to it), b) how did we make the
sional Contributions Award and can be reached at scott.tannen-
decision (e.g., who was involved, decision governance, infor-
baum@groupoe.com.
mation considered, speed of decision making, the way it was
communicated), c) what did we do well, d) what could we have Eduardo Salas, Ph.D., is the Allyn R. & Gladys M. Cline Chair Pro-
done differently in hindsight, and e) what does this mean for fessor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Rice University.
our future decisions (e.g., lessons learned and agreements). He has co-authored over 450 journal articles and book chapters, has
There are also times that lend themselves to slightly more co-edited 27 books, and received the 2016 APA Award for Outstand-
thorough debriefs. For example, the end of a project phase, ing Lifetime Contributions to Psychology. He can be reached at
or after a “misstep” has occurred, are often great times for a Eduardo.Salas@rice.edu.

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